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Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Photo taken May 2016. U.S. Navy/Handout

(reuters_tickers)

By Manuel Mogato

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines is deferring plans to repair and upgrade features it occupies in the disputed South China Sea, the country's military chiefs said on Thursday, to avoid provoking China while the two traditional foes seek to bury the hatchet.

The Philippines would continue to observe a moratorium on construction in the Spratly islands that it adopted while an international tribunal handled an arbitration case it lodged against Beijing in 2013.

Even though a ruling handed down in July last year went in favour of the Philippines, its military top brass felt the timing was not right to start upgrades.

The decision to defer upgrades was to avoid "any aggressive action in the West Philippine Sea," Military chief General Eduardo Ano told a news conference at an army base, using the name by which the Philippines refers to the South China Sea.

He said the move aimed to preserve a new era of friendlier relations with China under President Rodrigo Duterte, who decided to engage Beijing, rather than confront it in the wake of a arbitral award it bitterly opposed.

Duterte says he is in no hurry to discuss that ruling and will do so only when China is ready.

The Philippines has been occupying nine features in the Spratlys, including a submerged reef on which a rusting transport ship ran aground in the late 1990s.

The Philippines has by far the weakest defence structures in the disputed area and most facilities are dilapidated. Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and China also occupy areas of the contested archipelago.

China has reclaimed seven reefs, building man-made islands with anti-aircraft and anti-missile batteries. Satellite imagery shows development has continued lately, despite the arbitral ruling declaring that illegal.

Vietnam, which occupies the largest number of features in the South China Sea, has also enhanced its facilities.

"I don't know if we can now lift the moratorium," Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana told reporters. "We're on status quo for now."

Lorenzana said the government had allocated 800 million pesos ($16.15 million) to upgrade an eroded runway on an airfield on Thitu Island, but that work would not happen soon.

Rex Tillerson, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state, told U.S. legislators he wanted to send China a clear signal to stop building islands and leave those it has already made.

($1=49.5300 Philippine pesos)

(Editing by Martin Petty and Clarence Fernandez)

Reuters